On May 13th, 1997 in a small town in eastern New York a black Labrador named Jolene gave birth to ten healthy wriggling puppies. Jolene was a special and well loved breeding bitch who lived with a family in this small town but belonged to Guiding Eyes for The Blind, a guide dog training facility located in nearby Yorktown Heights New York. She had just given birth to their third “I” litter. *1 That litter of tiny adorable black and yellow puppies were about to take their first steps on a challenging, rewarding journey. *2
The puppy is fostered with a family who can commit to spending a large portion of everyday with the puppy. Over the coming months the puppy not only needs to be house trained but it will go with its puppy walker into the community. It needs to be “socialized” by regularly going in and out of business establishments.It should spend time in restaurants, visit public facilities such as hospitals, accompany its puppy walker to work,
hair appointments or to the gym, essentially learning to handle daily life out and about with a human.
Jolene’s puppies qualified for the puppy walking programme and some were very lucky because they were placed with puppy walkers who were friends with Jolene’s foster family. They knew her and had been enjoying the puppies’ company from the time they were born. One of these fortunate puppies was a beautiful little black female that Guiding Eyes named Isolda. Having passed her first tests Isolda went home with Rebecca, and then as Rebecca might have said, they began their adventure, and started having fun!
Over the next year and a half Isolda lived with Rebecca and the first dog Rebecca had puppy walked,a chocolate Labrador (named Godiva) who did not pass the final tests and did not train to be a guide dog. When she failed Rebecca was asked if she would like to keep her as a pet dog and having become close to this adorable fun girl she was happy to adopt her.
Together Rebecca and Godiva set about giving Isolda a wonderful education. While Godiva indulged the puppy in games of tug, hung out chewing bones with her, and taught her how to drive Rebecca mad by stealing one sock from a pair while she was dressing (a game Isolda never stopped playing);
Rebecca took her into work daily, gave her lessons in obedience, showed her how to sit politely in the car, and brought her all over town as she ran her errands. Isolda had a happy exciting life,
and right from the beginning displayed the qualities that a good guide dog needs, intelligence, the ability to make and trust her own judgements, along with a blend of calm, curiosity and quiet courage.
With the enthusiastic support and training she received everyday it was no wonder that she passed her interim assessments with ease. Then came the final test when with very mixed emotions Rebecca brought her to the kennels to be evaluated. She was proud of her girl, knew she was a strong confident loving dog who could help make a difference in someone’s life, but loved her dearly and dreaded the parting that a pass would mean.
Isolda was tested and past, but Guiding Eyes had full kennels at the time and could not take her. Rebecca was asked if she wanted to keep Isolda as a pet. She was very tempted having formed a bond that was unexpectedly strong and deep with this special dog. But Isolda had been bred for a purpose, one she was admirably suited to, and Rebecca wanted her to fulfill that destiny. She set about looking for a programme which would accept her beloved girl, and both let Isolda do the work she was more than capable of performing, and still give her a healthy, happy and safe life. After examining and rejecting several options Rebecca contacted and made arrangements to donate Isolda to Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind. She was slightly reassured when their warm and personable head trainer came to collect Isolda for the long drive to her new kennels, but it was still a heart breaking moment. In January 1999 Isolda arrived in and began her training at Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind (CGDB), located just outside of Ottawa Canada, in a sleepy rural town called Manotick. She adapted well and for the next twenty-four weeks she worked with several of CGDB’s trainers , learning the skills that would enable her to guide someone who could not see. Having once again passed all her tests she graduated from CGDB’s programme, and they began the all important task of matching Isolda with her new partner/handler. In August 1999 Isolda met her handler and shortly after became apart of our lives. The partner CGDB selected went to their facility to train with Isolda and the CGDB staff. Those first weeks are a time of adjustment as dog and handler get to know each other and begin a long process of forming a bond and learning to work together.
While other breeds are suitable to work as guide dogs and often do, the Retrievers (Labrador, Golden Retrievers and cross breeds of Labs and Goldens) are some of the easiest breeds to train. *3 Most of them have a personality that wishes to please, they are bright and quick (like many other breeds) but generally have flexible and accommodating personalities that allow them to blend well into family life, and adjust to changes in schedule along with being placid about handling long periods of quiet time, like a day at an office. Isolda, an unusually receptive and gentle dog was particularly affectionate and eager to please. She and her new handler formed a team easily. It takes anywhere from six months to a year before a guide dog and its handler create a bond of mutual trust and dependence that allows them to function as a true team. Sadly not every partnership does form a team, not every dog and human are compatible. However, as CGDB explains every effort is made to make a choice of handler who will work well with the dog they match them with.
Isolda spent the next twelve years with her handler/partner. Policies vary between guide dog schools, some handing over ownership of the dog to the handler outright, but many preferring to keep ownership of the dog until it is retired. While most guide dog schools retire their dogs while they are still young and healthy enough to have a few years to relax and enjoy life, CGDB has always made it a point to retire their dogs quite early, in order for them to savour a life without responsibility when they can simply be a care-free Dog. When the dog is retired the handler is offered the opportunity to keep her. Sadly due to a combination of
circumstances this is often impossible. The handler’s friends or family members who have interacted with the dog during its working life have the second option and very often a guide dog finds a retirement home with one of its handler’s relatives. If no one can or will adopt them the third person who may take the retired dog is their puppy walker. And as a last resort guide dog facilities have adopt a retired guide dog programme. Applicants are screened carefully since these dogs are accustomed to being with a person day and night (literally) seven days a week, and they need company and stimulation, in addition to the care that pets require as they age. The families who take in the older dogs are special, and receive a unique loving experience in return for their care and generosity.
Isolda retired and stayed with her handler. She never lost the skills she had been taught, and to the last walk she took was careful to walk in a straight line on the sidewalk, just as Rebecca had taught her to do so many years before. An unusually kind and generous spirit, Isolda truly touched all the humans she came into repeated contact with. Some who disliked dogs found an unexpected soft spot for her, and people afraid of large dogs trusted her. When she passed in June 2011 she left a gap in many lives, and is lovingly remembered, and missed to this day.
I was lucky enough to know Isolda for many years. I am fond of animals especially dogs (many who know me feel I am excessively fond of All animals), but Isolda truly was an exceptional dog, with an exceptional personality. However, Isolda‘s love and devotion to her life’s work were typical of thousands of beautiful trained dogs who walk the streets everyday, making judgement calls as they guide their partners around and through the people and obstacles the handlers cannot see. From the day it is born until its retirement a guide dog will cost the school who trains it approximately fifty thousand dollars. That does not include its food or medical expenses both of which are covered by the handler it is placed with. *4
While the handler does make a payment for the dog (the precise amount and conditions vary from one facility to the next) they are only charged a nominal fee, which is fortunate since the majority of the blind people who need guide dogs could not afford to cover even a small percentage of the cost of training one. Guide dog schools are charitable organizations and do not receive government funding. They are dependant on donations to continue to breed, foster, train and place their incredible dogs. But as one guide dog handler said, “the freedom and companionship that having a determined focused furry body striding beside one gives is not something that could ever be measured in mere money!”
*1 In common with other pedigree programmes, guide dog facilities use the alphabet to help track their litters. Each litter when born is given a letter of the alphabet, starting at “A”. All the puppies in that litter will have names beginning with “A”, and the next litter’s names will all begin with “B” and so on. Once they have worked their way through the alphabet they begin again with “A”. *2 Six of the ten puppies (including Isolda) in Jolene’s litter graduated and were successfully placed as guide dogs. *3 While many guide dog schools have experimented with different dog breeds as guides the Retrievers have usually come in first. The Golden Retriever has been being phased out as a guide of choice by many schools because the breed is sadly prone to health problems such as hip dysplasia, which make work as a guide dog especially difficult and painful for the dogs. While the Labrador Retriever remains a favourite, eight percent of the dogs that Guiding Eyes For The Blind breeds annually are now German Shepherds,
and other schools also breed and train Shepherds. Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind (along with some other schools) has also trained and placed a small percentage of standard Poodles. These dogs offer people who suffer from severe dog allergies the opportunity to have a guide dog. Other breeds have been trained successfully as guide dogs, however, Retrievers and Shepherds remain the most popular breeds in North America. *4 Once a guide dog is in the care of its handler its living expenses are the handler’s responsibility. Some guide dog schools do offer financial assistance to handlers to help with medical expenses. In general these do not cover basic expenses such as annual check-ups, shots, heart worm prevention/blood tests, or small illnesses. There are some organizations (such as Guide Dog Users Of Canada who offer programmes to assist with large medical bills for expensive procedures. Guide dog facilities stay in touch with every team throughout the dog’s life and check that the dog is receiving regular veterinary care. For more information on any of the programmes referred to in this article please visit our Information and Events page or contact either facility directly at: Canadian Guide Dogs for The Blind: Tel: (613) 692-7777 Public Relations email : firstname.lastname@example.org General email to CGDB: email@example.com Fax (613) 692-0650 Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind 4120 Rideau Valley Drive North PO Box 280 Manotick, Ontario K4M 1A3 (Canada) Guiding Eyes for The Blind Headquarters and Training Center 611 Granite Springs Rd. Yorktown Heights, NY 10598 Toll Free Phone: 800-942-0149 Phone: 914-245-4024 FAX: 914-245-1609 Or find the Email address you need on their Contact Us Page. Note: A special thank you to Michelle, Kelly, Steve and Yanush some of the terrific staff at Guiding Eyes and CGDB, without whom this post would not have had so many fantastic photos. We appreciate all the help they gave in patiently answering questions, endlessly forwarding a variety of photos (Kelly I’m greatful!) and volunteering the excellent information documents we’ve made available to download. Thank you also to Isolda‘s puppy walker for taking all those gorgeous pictures of her wonderful girl. They were lovingly assembled into a beautiful puppy book, which she generously presented to Isolda‘s handler shortly before they graduated. It is still treasured. We appreciate the use of some of its photos.